Is Sustainable Growth an Oxymoron?

We do a lot without thinking, like using GDP growth as a standard of excellence. Most 21st century activity is based on a ‘given’ that underpins the soft science of economics: ‘Growth is good’ — not just a big assumption, a wrong assumption. Pudding with no proof.

Let’s face it, the economic crisis was good news for the environment. Greenhouse gas emissions dropped by half during the economic low point in 2008.

 

Is Sustainable Growth an Oxymoron?, boomer warrior

The Myth of Sustainable Growth

Senior Economist at the World Bank, Herman E. Daly and Dr. Kenneth N. Townsend have proven that we can’t grow our way out of poverty and environmental degradation. Sustainable economic growth is impossible, since the economy is an open subsystem of the Earth’s ecosystem, which is finite, non-growing, and materially closed. As the economic subsystem grows, it engulfs more and more of the ecosystem in which it exists and is bound to reach a limit when it ‘incorporates’ (their word) 100 percent of the ecosystem, if not before. Thus, the economy’s infinite growth is by Nature not sustainable.

I encountered an enlightening microcosm of growth while strolling through a Sogetsu Ikebana exhibition listening to spectator comments.

“When we are in a beautiful garden, we feel happy, but what we don’t realize is, each of the plants in that garden is actually fighting each other for the space to grow. And some plant species are actually at war with others,” says author Rene Bersma, observing an arrangement by his wife, Atsuko Bersma, Ikebana Sensei. “We just think it’s a beautiful, colorful compilation of flowers and bushes and everything together, and we sometimes don’t realize that some plants don’t like each other and fight for very valuable space.”

In that context, governments’ fossil fuel subsidies, which total $ 1.9 trillion annually according to International Monetary Fund reports, can be considered a weed choking sane investment. Not only do our governments give money to fossil fuel © companies directly, but those same companies turn around and dump huge cleanup costs on society, a practice called ‘negative externalities.’

Three Examples of Sustainable Growth 

1. There are selective things we would do well to invest in, like traveling with our minds instead of our bodies. Virtual meetings are where it’s at. Buying a round trip ticket for one seat in an airplane from New York to London puts as much CO2 into the atmosphere as a house does in a whole year, so we should look hard for ways to meet virtually, rather than flying around.

2. If you want to know what the next big trend is, ask kids. They’re usually on to something. Virtual book tours have been popularized by young adult sites like, LitPick, an American Association of School Librarians’ award-winning Best Website for Teaching and Learning. The virtual book tour is the same concept as flying from city to city doing readings in bookstores, but instead of flying around, the author tours from blog to blog. That smacks of so much common sense, it’s no wonder so many older adults are turning to the honor and purity of YA literature–the average age of a YA reader is now between 30 and 44 years old.

Authors on virtual book tours can stop for an interview with LitPick Co-founder Gary Cassel, where they talk about everything from what inspires them to write books to sharing the Earth with their animal friends. LitPick even has an environmental shelf with over 270 great pre-teen and teen books on it. This unique site allows students to read new and advance books they get for free and then write and publish their opinions about the books. “The opinions of students about books written for them are very powerful and compelling, more so than adult reviews of preteen and teen literature,” says Gary. “We also help promote better writing by giving students feedback on their reviews.”

The next activity worth selecting to grow is the wearing of super-warm onsies. Why go out when you can stay home in your hot pajamas and turn down the heat? This piece of clothing comes in all shapes and sizes, from serious to silly, complete with nightcap hoodie, and will erase years off your heating bill.

3. The third thing is so retro it hardly needs explaining. It has to do with modifying that bicycle collecting dust in the basement so it can haul groceries and ride in the dark. People who sit all day have an increased risk of death. With a third of the U.S. officially obese, investment in physical activity can only result in positive shrinkage.

I’m going to put on my onsie, stay home, and catch the darling of the Traverse City Film Festival, ‘Two Raging Grannies’… standing up.
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J. L. Morin graduated from Harvard and is now adjunct faculty at Boston University. She has recently release the award-winning cli-fi novel, Nature’s Confession, Her Japan novel Sazzae won a Gold medal in the 2010 eLit Book Award, and was a 2010 winner in the Living Now Book Awards. Morin’s second novel – Travelling Light – is about sex slavery. She is also the author of ‘Occupy’s 1st bestselling novel, Trading Dreams, a humorous story that unmasks hypocrisy in the banking industry and tosses corruption onto the horns of the Wall Street bull.

Her writing has appeared in the Huffington Post, The Harvard Advocate, Harvard Yisei, the Detroit News, Agence France Presse, Cyprus Weekly, European Daily, Livonia Observer Eccentric Newspapers, the Harvard Crimson and others.

You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

14 Responses to Is Sustainable Growth an Oxymoron?

  1. One thing about economic growth that many do not realize is it is not a function of choice. What I mean by that is we don’t grow our economies because we want to, economies grow because that is the math of the free enterprise system of economics. It has to do with the money supply, long story short, with free enterprise the money runs out if economic growth goes negative or flattens. Or another way to look at besides money is product; the same thing applies. You have to have growth of product or “production” will cease. Most free market economies need at least an average 3% growth rate to avoid recessions and ultimately depressions. It’s similar to the law of thermal dynamics or like a water mill, where it takes more water going into the wheel than coming out to keep it turning.

    So, this being said, when we talk about having static economies but still refer to them as having money and banks, we don’t know what we are talking about. To get away from economic growth we’ll have to have an entire new system of exchange. As painful as that sounds it is what will “have to” happen, we’ll never do it with our present system, unless we can defy math somehow.

  2. .. “governments’ fossil fuel subsidies, which total $ 1.9 trillion annually…” First, end tax funded pollution of the commons. Frees $1.9 trillion for doing good. Second. Since energy is obviously the driver of “growth,” as long and most energy comes from fossilized sunshine the premiss holds. Answer, Distributed Green Energy. That brings cash flow to the people, not the polluters. 3. When people have cash flow they have time for other pursuits like gardening, arts, helping others and all the rest.
    Capitalism, unrestrained by the requirements of Planetary life support systems, is guaranteed mutually assured destruction. Socially enabled capitalism is clearly a failed paradigm. However it has long been said that the difference between desert and bounty is not water but man we begin to see a way out of the dilemma.

    “Green Growth” is not an oxymoron.
    If “Growth” becomes defined as the opposite of Planetary ecocide and not $$$ and destitute billions to:
    1. Clean water, nutritious food, justice and equality?
    2. The nurturing and rejuvenation of threatened species and habitat?
    3. The education and acceptance of women and girls as equal and deserving members of Humanity?
    4.The transformation of “socially enabled capitalism” and Governments that have evolved into “self licking ice cream cones,” (Dr. J. Hansen), into watchdogs for a peaceful, just, harmonious cohabitation of all members of Space Ship Earth as we hurtle space and time?
    5. The lifting of the burden of necessary labor powered by exploited fossil carbon and the whip and cries of man and beast to the passive advancement of intellect, arts and love powered by the daily allotment of sunshine?

    Sounds like “Growth” to me.

    At least a lot more fun than the present ecocide gallop and worth trying IMO.

    “We don’t have a right to ask whether we’re going to succeed or not – the only question we have a right to ask is: What’s the right thing to do? What does this Earth require of us if we want to continue to live on it?” Wendell Berry

  3. Thanks, Danny. The world has many different systems, not just one. Even within the United States, ‘systems’ aren’t as homogenous as the media would like us to believe. Many of these economies are stable and are not growing. People have food and money and are doing fine. They have enough, not more.

  4. Thanks JL, I enjoyed your piece. Yes I’m sure there are economies that are stable, but it’s likely they are small economies from small nations or maybe even closed economies with finite needs and population, ie large communes. But this doesn’t work the same way in the greater world, and especially for the large economies of the developed world. Also, these small economies that stay small are able to do that because of the large economies that “can’t” stay static. Bottom line, if there is going to be free enterprise on the planet, then there is going to be product and economic growth overall. It’s the math. But hey, it ain’t like we gotta protect this money thing and keep it til the bitter end, we can do other wise. But whatever we do it will have to be at scales many times smaller than what we see now in the developed world, many, many, times.
    There’s a popular idea going on out there that we can have static economies that also provide a nice standard of living. This is a lie. We will not be able to have “nice” standards of living of any kind and be able to solve the issues that are moving us towards extinction. We’ve piled the troubles on to make for a huge pile, you can’t stay comfortable and dismantle that pile at the same time. It’s gonna hurt, we gonna have to live poor and return to using our hands more than we knew they could be used. That or die. We’ll figure it out eventually.

  5. You raised an important point, Danny. Regarding size, there’s no rule that says we have to think big. Look at what the Compact of Mayors did:

    “Just last fall in New York, a group of 228 cities representing 436 million citizens around the world committed to cut greenhouse gas pollution by two billion tons per year. This ‘Compact of Mayors’, including Chinese cities, set their signatures to paper during the United Nations Climate Summit in New York last September. Emissions trading in several Chinese regions in 2013 has cut carbon dioxide emissions by 2.5 million metric tons, according to Shenzhen Vice Mayor, Tang Jie.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/j-l-morin/theres-more-to-the-oil-cr_b_6561974.html

    Remember how the Iron Curtain crumbled, not from enormous outside military force as expected.

  6. Forgive me for keeping the light on here JL, but I do want to respond again. That action from the mayors was a very good thing and while we are in this particular mode of trying to find a way out of this mess, all the mayor compacts we can get will be welcome. Understand though this is a start up action and an isolated success. We are getting a lot of those. However, and I can’t stress this enough, those successes are happening on the margins and are independent of the overall flow of our condition, namely that emissions are still rising. It’s like the flowing of a river, there the coves that bring water in and by all appearance the flow has stop, but look back towards the river and it’s still going. Why, cuz it’s on a down hill terrain, in other words, the entire landscape is what makes the river flow. If you want the flow to stop, you gotta change the landscape it sets in.
    That is exactly where we are at with our economies. We cannot alter them for where they sit. And this you will see will be the case for many of these cities you talked about. What gain they made will be lost as long as we sit in this down hill terrain of free enterprise, maybe not within there own cities or locale, but the domino effect of what they have done will show up somewhere as it is a global economy now and basically all free market. Free market economies have to grow, if these cites lost some growth, don’t worry, it’ll be picked up elsewhere. How do I know? Cuz I can guarantee that within the time span of there effort to cut emissions, the overall state of the global economy was growth. And remember, the overall state of emissions is growth also.
    If we are going to remain with free enterprise and banks, no matter how we try to correct the path, we are going to grow economies and use massive amount of energy to do it, and deplete resources to the point of devastation. No way out of it but to shut it down and do something else to live by.

  7. The kind of growth Leif defined above is interesting to look at. Here’s an example of his kind of profitable, sustainable growth:

    Jan. 16 (Bloomberg) — U.S. trash has made Zhang Yin China’s richest person. Zhang in 1990 started collecting wastepaper in Los Angeles and shipping it to China to make the cardboard needed by growing export industries. Her company, Nine Dragons Paper Holdings Ltd., is now China’s biggest packaging maker. Nine Dragon’s stock has risen fourfold since its March initial public offering, pushing Zhang’s fortune to $4.7 billion.

    http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=aX2DENqYvouU

  8. I agree with Leif.

    All life competes for space to procreate on the planet. The winners are the ones most suited to the environment I place. The same winners are the most adaptable lifeforms.

    The definition of ‘life’ is ‘movement. This also translates into growth and it must be sustainable for life to continue. Therefore ‘sustainable growth’ is not an oxymoron, but rather a necessity for all life forms.

    The human dilemma is that we have neither been sustainable, nor have we grown with fair competition for all lifeforms necessary for ecological balance.

    It will take a lot more than wearing a ‘Onesie’ to repair the destruction we have reaped on this planet. Our problem isn’t politics either. Our biggest problem is our perception that we are the ‘masters’ of all that lives on this planet. We decided, eons ago, that rape and pillage wins and that we can control the elements that make up our world. History has proved us to be incompetent (and often evil) fools.

    Leif has the right ideas to get started in a new direction. But we have still to convince the world that a radical change in thinking is required.

  9. Another reason to explore growth and sustainability is getting people to agree to good practices. Having one or two babies is a good practice, a way to keep the population numbers of humans at sustainable levels. When we add philosophy to our mix of dilemmas, that might include the philosophy of a religion wanting multiple births for the purpose of expanding their congregations… well that kind of thinking is counter productive in our world today. It may seem impossible to convince a religion that two babies will suffice, but the only way we can control our population growth is through limiting our country’s number of births.

    I saw a TED Lecture not long ago about some poorer countries that are working on population controls and are meeting with good success. Canada is not such a country. Many third world countries consume less resources than first world countries do. However, because first world countries are not working on population controls, our planet is becoming over populated with too many people and we can include our farm animals in that mix. Our pollution from both sources people and farm animals needs the good practice of being diminished to meet more sustainable levels. We can work on this, but most people simply do not want to. Meat is delicious and families like babies.

    Farm animals suffer from over population because they are finding themselves being grown in factory farms with little space to move around or even stand up. They are treated horrifically because the farmer has no patience with too many animals and deadlines to keep. Aggravating animals who can’t stand up or walk because they never had the space to do that, is a continuing issue. With so much food to resource in populated cities across our country it is surprising in a way, to find people on our streets without enough food or enough sheltered protection. This indicates how rapidly we need to change our thinking and our good practices. Canada has become a dilemma. We are not overpopulated but we continue to support many people trying to survive in our country who have neither food, shelter nor resources. We give them a loony, perhaps a winter coat and leave them to the elements on our city streets, neglected.

    Things need to change. Canada needs to fix itself before our country can help to guide other countries by welcoming needy refugees to our shores. We have the space for them and the resources too. Without a successful plan of action though, without having limits to population growth, food sustainability and water rationing, those refugees will remain refugees on our city streets. Canada needs good resource practices in place; a plan to limit birth numbers, a plan to not only sustain our food resources but our fertile soils too and finally a plan to have water usage controls in place as soon as possible. Otherwise, Canadians can look forward to becoming the refugees, to becoming the neglected people on the street.

  10. Too true, Linda! And an even better practice for this day and age is having no babies.

  11. Thank You Danny, Leif, Colette, Linda and JL for your observations and insights.

    The issue of overpopulation is not sufficiently discussed in climate change circles. And as you pointed out Linda, the overpopulation of certain animals consumed by humans is also becoming problematic in its own right.

    We have created such a cultural-economic-political-environmental nightmare for ourselves that it’s hard to conceive how humanity will escape the seemingly inevitable race to the edge of the cliff. Is there enough time for humankind to evolve sufficiently before it’s just too late? I ask myself that question daily.

  12. Thanks, Rolly. You are right. Overpopulation is at the root of our pollution problem as the planet reaches its saturation point. It’s interesting to look at what is happening in China with the one child policy to see some of the pitfalls of implementing a policy of shrinkage.

  13. JL – can you elaborate of some of these pitfalls of a policy of shrinkage. The only one I can think of off hand is that there will not be sufficient population replacement to sustain the economy and economic growth. But isn’t that a strong reason to reduce population? In other words, if we need to reduce the world’s demand on dwindling resources, is not logical to shrink population?

  14. NOT sustaining economic growth is what sustaining the planet is all about. Look at China with its 1-child policy. There just aren’t enough resources to go around. It’s polluted and desperately needs less people. When it comes to precious resources, companies like Nestle are jockeying for water rights:

    “Large multinational beverage companies are usually given water-well privileges (and even tax breaks) over citizens because they create jobs, which is apparently more important to the local governments than water rights to other taxpaying citizens. These companies such as Coca Cola and Nestlé (which bottles suburban Michigan well-water and calls it Poland Spring) suck up millions of gallons of water, leaving the public to suffer with any shortages.” http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-privatisation-of-water-nestle-denies-that-water-is-a-fundamental-human-right/5332238

    Would they like us to grow so they can make more money? The planet is not a machine.

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